THE ROMAN PERIOD
O V E R V I E W
Ancient Greek Coins
In Western Anatolia (modern Turkey), sometime around 600 BCE, the Lydians hit upon the idea of shaping electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, into bean-shaped lumps of fixed weight and purity and stamping them with official symbols. Going west across the islands of the Aegean Sea, coinage arrived on mainland Greece. By 550 BCE, the practice of striking coins was established in all the important trading cities throughout the known world.
Greece consisting of several independent city-states, the coinage of these various cities was equally various. Each city-state selected a design to represent the city and to be recognized and accepted as the product of that city's authority, usually most Greek coins portrayed Gods or Goddesses. Few of those cities inscribed their names on their coins, so identification and attribution of this Greek coinage has been the subject of numismatic scholarship since ancient times.
These Greek coins were produced by laying a lump of precious metal on a die cut into (or positioned on) an anvil. The metal was forced into the design by a blow delivered from a hammer to a punch. While most of these punches were plain, a few cities used a specific design or pattern of divisions on the punch. An unknown Greek came up with the idea of cutting the surface of the punch with a second design complimenting the front of the coin. The coin as we know it today was born: a round disk with design on each side impressed by pressure on a blank of metal.
Naturally this change was not accepted by all authorities at the same time. The earliest two sided coins are two hundred years older that the last of the single sided designs. Some cities used the same basic designs for centuries. Within the series are minor variations but the coins of many cities can be recognized easily throughout the period of independent coinage.
Foremost among the cities issuing coins was Athens. After a few experiments in the early archaic period Athens settled down on a silver coinage with the head of Athena on one side and her owl on the other. As recognizable as it was, these coins also were inscribed with the name of the city. A rather different head of Athena was also used on the silver coins of Corinth but, in place of the owl, Corinth used the winged horse Pegasus.
The coins of Athens and Corinth illustrate an interesting technical distinction: heads and tails or obverse and reverse. General usage of the terms defines "obverse" as the more important side usually with the head of the honored ruler or God. "Reverse" is the other, lesser side. Technical numismatists define the "obverse" as the side struck by the anvil die and "reverse" as the side struck by the punch or upper die. Usually the coin surfaces struck by the punch is slightly concave compared to the anvil side. The coins of Corinth were struck with Pegasus on the anvil and Athena on the punch. Technically, therefore, the "head" was on the reverse while the "tailed" horse was on the obverse. For much of the period, Athens used a punch (the owl) considerably smaller than the anvil die (Athena). As a result the slight cupping normal for a reverse was considerably exaggerated. At least Athens had the decency to put the head on the "heads" side.
As a practical matter, obverse or anvil dies lasted longer than reverse or punch dies. It makes sense that the more elaborate or important die would be placed in the protected position.
Not all Greek cities, however were independent. Colonies were established in distant parts of the Mediterranean world. Coins issued by these colonies sometimes mirrored the issues of the mother city. For example, coins of the colonies of Corinth used the Athena/Pegasus types but bore the initials of the colony that produced them. Ancient Greek civilization extended far beyond what is today called Greece. Many of the most prized "Greek" coins were issued by the cities founded by Greek colonists in southern Italy (Magna Graecia) or Sicily. Being so, "Greek" coins include issues from Spain to India during the period that Greek civilization dominated the Mediterranean world.
Early Greek coins were made of precious metal, usually silver, equal in weight to the value of the denomination. Daily commerce required small denominations which resulted in some very tiny coins. Around the start of the fourth century BCE some authorities took the practical step of issuing small denominations in bronze (collectors call several different copper alloys "bronze"). These coins did not necessarily contain the full value in terms of metal but they filled the need for a circulating currency as long as the populace trusted the issuing authority to back the value of the issue. As a result, silver coinage could be expected to circulate widely based on the value of its silver but bronze coins usually were accepted in the limited area of their issue.
Independent Greek city coinage began to disappear as more and more independent cities fell under the control of the great central power: Macedonia. By the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE) the need for coinage in many areas was being filled by the Macedonian royal coinage. Following the death of Alexander the empire was subdivided among Alexander's generals who issued what we call the Hellenistic coinage. Quite different from the city coinage, these issues usually bore a portrait of the ruler on the obverse. Legends became increasingly important with some coins bearing a long legend of royal names and titles. Some issues began to be dated to the year of the king
or of the dynasty.
Parallel to the Hellenistic coinage are the issues of lands that bordered on the Greek world. The practical desirability of the Greek system of coinage was recognized by the kings of Parthia (in what is now Iran) and India, among others. The Parthians issued a long series of coins that resemble the Hellenistic Greek issues. The king is shown, usually facing left, on the obverse with a seated archer surrounded by an extensive legend on the reverse. This legend was usually in Greek but sometimes it was mixed with local script or stylized into an illegible blur.
Read more about this subject at Ancient
Greek and Roman Coins by Doug Smith, from were large parts of this
page were borrowed.
Copyright ©1998-1999 Roy George